November 10, 2011


Busoni: Doktor Faust. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Richard Lewis, Ian Wallace, Heather Harper, John Cameron; Ambrosian Singers, Chorus from the Royal Academy of Music, and London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. LPO. $16.99.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 8; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Otto Klemperer: Merry Waltz; Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole; Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Ottokar Nováček: Perpetuum mobile. London Symphony, BBC Symphony and New Philharmonia Orchestras conducted by Leopold Stokowski. BBC Legends. $39.99 (3 CDs).

     It is all too easy to idealize the past – indeed, in a sense, humans remake themselves by reimagining their pasts all the time. When it comes to music, it is easy to think that “legendary” performances of the past were far superior to anything more modern, and certainly better than any renditions recorded more recently. Now, though, thanks to the increase in releases of archival recordings, this belief in the superiority of the performers and recordings of yesteryear can be put to the test, or rather to the ear. This frequently involves a rebalancing of priorities – superb older performances of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, for example, almost invariably omit exposition repeats that the composers wanted and that are nearly always included today. In the case of a less-known work such as Busoni’s opera Doktor Faust, revisiting a classic performance from 1959 makes it possible to appreciate some excellent casting and singing – while regretting the significantly shortened version that was presented. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is in fine voice here as Faust (he appeared several times in this opera, even appearing in one production as a speaker), and the rest of the cast supports him ably, with Richard Lewis a suitably unpleasant Mephistopheles and Heather Harper an effective if perhaps not highly seductive Duchess of Parma. Busoni’s libretto, which he wrote himself, varies substantially from Goethe’s better-known version of the Faust legend, with (for example) the seduction and abandonment of Gretchen occurring in a prologue and being less important than Gretchen’s brother’s failed attempt at revenge. At the time Sir Adrian Boult conducted this recording, the only available version of the opera was the completion by Philipp Jarnach, and this in turn was shortened for purposes of the BBC broadcast recorded here. Decades later, in 1982, Antony Beaumont completed Doktor Faust by using sketches by Busoni that had previously been thought lost. So what this recording offers is a shortened version of a not-ideally-completed version of Busoni’s final opera, well sung and certainly well conducted, but ultimately coming across as rather thin – which the score as a whole decidedly is not.

     The three-CD BBC Legends release of performances by Leopold Stokowski is in some ways at the opposite extreme. Stokowski always favored the lush, and his conducting was inevitably broad in scope and grand in scale; it was as if he attained subtlety mostly by accident. Throughout this compilation, there are grand gestures and very broad approaches to music, whether the works are well adapted to the Stokowski technique or not. Stokowski was also a tinkerer with orchestration, using his vast knowledge of the orchestra to heighten elements that he thought could be brought out more effectively if things were changed here and there from what the composer wrote. This is a decidedly old-school approach that was uncommon even when Stokowski was in his heyday; to the extent that it occurs and is audible in these recordings, it simply sounds odd, as if the emphases and colors are in the wrong places. Stokowski was a master of the massive but was scarcely known for delicacy. Thus, in the 1963 recording of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, with the BBC Chorus, BBC Choral Society, Goldsmith’s Choral Union, Harrow Choral Society and London Symphony Orchestra – plus soloists Rae Woodland and Janet Baker – the choral sections of the finale are gigantic and the lengthy lead-in to them is broad and intense; and the funereal first movement is also effective, even in the performance’s obsolete monophonic sound. But the middle movements, where Mahler so carefully balances the heaviness and intensity of the open and close, are disappointingly pedestrian (although Baker’s rich contralto is superb). Similarly, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, recorded in 1964 with the London Symphony, has a wonderful-sounding finale (although too triumphal for more-modern interpretations of the work), but the subtleties, sarcasm and warmth of the earlier movements do not get their full due. Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 8, also recorded in 1964 – but with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – fares better: perhaps because the work is less known, Stokowski approaches it in a more straightforward way, and the orchestra’s excellent playing makes a strong case for the music. Ottokar Nováček’s Perpetuum mobile, recorded the same year with the same orchestra, is a minor work (although the composer’s best-known one), handled pleasantly enough in Stokowski’s own orchestration. The remaining pieces here feature the New Philharmonia Orchestra and were recorded in 1974. Otto Klemperer’s Merry Waltz is nicely played, if a little lumbering; Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole is a bit too grand and expansive although, again, well played; and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is so rich a brew of strings that it is nearly overwhelming – it is sumptuous but very slow. As for Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, the most transparent of the composer’s symphonies and the most indebted to Bach, it gets a somewhat too grandiose and overly speedy treatment that makes it rather less impressive than it can be. All the works here showcase Stokowski as a conductor generally more comfortable with grand gestures and big works than with pieces of more-modest dimensions or requiring a lighter touch. His approach seems very much one of the past – a time when many classical works were far less known than they are today, so changes and reemphases by a conductor seemed far more justifiable. There is a great deal worthwhile in these Stokowski performances, but also quite a bit that will sound wrong-headed, slightly “off,” to today’s audiences.

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